“Lipstick Vogue” builds off themes established previously on This Year’s Model in songs like “The Beat” and “Hand In Hand” (and bits and pieces of all the rest): dissolving relationships, sexual guilt and insecurity, and romantic possessiveness. But here, the Attractions are simply unrestrained: like in “No Action”, things sound like they could fall apart at any second. And during the bridge, they sort of do.
The song begins with a drum fill, but compared to the intro in “(I Don’t Want to Go to) Chelsea” this one is imprecise (you can almost picture Pete Thomas flailing about behind his kit — think Animal from the Muppets). Steve Nieve leads in with a keyboard line, and then the rest of the band enters as Pete Thomas settles into a stable beat. Bruce Thomas is again in fine form, keeping the song melodically interesting even in the absence of a vocal line (sometimes Bruce’s basslines are as catchy, after all).
Costello is presumably addressing a girl whose affection is suspect: “Don’t say you love me when it’s just a rumor / Don’t say a word if there is any doubt”. Costello compares their stagnant relationship to a tumor, and suggests they should “cut it out”, in the first of two chilling self-mutilation analogies in the song. “You say you’re sorry for the things that you’ve done / You say you’re sorry but you know you don’t mean it / I wouldn’t worry I had so much fun / Sometimes I almost feel just like a human being” — in this second part of the verse, the narrator acknowledges the relationship’s sexual perks, sardonically adding that they “almost made him feel human” in spite of his neuroses. Costello sounds breathless when he sings here, and it compliments the song’s rushed aesthetic.
The rhythm guitar is more prominent in the mix than it is on most of the album. For the majority of the verse, Elvis aggressively “scrubs” on one chord, although his playing is more subdued during the choruses. Steve Nieve plays a single-note piano melody during the brief transition to the song’s relative major key during the chorus that’s reminiscent of Abba, either intentionally or on accident (a neat foreshadowing of the band’s all-out “Dancing Queen” emulation on Armed Forces’ “Oliver’s Army”). On “it’s you” in the chorus, Costello makes a sloppy, pitchy attempt at vibrato, a technique he wouldn’t master until Trust, at least.
The Attractions “take things down a notch” for the second verse: there’s no guitar, just bass and drums, and a quiet sustained organ chord by Steve Nieve. After the last line of the second verse — the cryptic and genuinely frightening “You say I’ve got no feelings / Well this is a good way to kill them” — the band degenerates into the jammiest moment on the record (which they would occasionally extend during live performances). Every instrument grows more and more pronounced and right when you think the band has reached their breaking point, everyone stops playing abruptly except for Pete Thomas (with additional piano sprinkles courtesy of Steve Nieve), who plays a variation of the opening drum pattern. Then Costello enters — this is the final verse? The entire band enters again at a reprise of the song’s standout line (“Sometimes I almost feel . . . just like a human being!”). During this final chorus, Elvis sings an unconventional low harmony on the word “you” that is practically imperceptible at a low volume. During the coda, Elvis participates in a playful, 2 Tone-esque call-and-response with the Attractions. The song ends on an unresolved chord, and Pete Thomas and Steve Nieve both provide instrumental speckles over another one of Nieve’s sustained, eerie organ chords.
Live renditions appears on both Live at Hollywood High and Live at the El Mocambo, and plenty of footage of the song being performed live around this period of Elvis’ career exists. Costello had good reason to feel confident about it — it’s another one of those cuts that’s representative of the Attractions (I mean, could you imagine this song appearing on My Aim Is True? I thought not).